Championing Bilingualism in America
Steve Leveen is the co-founder and former CEO of Levenger, a consumer products company focused on readers, writers and creators. It was not until midlife that he committed to learning Spanish. He describes himself as an emerging bilingual; Spanish is his adopted language.
Steve used his fellowship years at Stanford DCI and Harvard’s Advanced Leadership Institute to conduct research for his book on bilingualism, America’s Bilingual Century. In addition, Steve is the founder of the America the Bilingual project and the host of the America the Bilingual podcast.
Author and podcaster Steve Leveen’s (DCI 2016) career has always been about language. First as a science journalist, and then as the founder and CEO of Levenger, a company that offers products for reading and writing. But as a lifelong English monolingual, he never imagined he would wake up one day and decide to become one of the 23% of Americans who are bilingual.
Steve had already decided to step back from his CEO role when he says that “completely out of the blue, he became fascinated with the topic of bilingualism.”
Growing up in San Diego, CA Steve remembers he was “swimming in Spanish, but not getting wet.” But it wasn’t until he was in his mid-fifties that he was inspired to begin investing what would ultimately be thousands of hours in learning to speak Spanish.
To become proficient in another language, Steve discovered, requires living it in your daily life. This means reading, writing, and listening to it every day. For example, Steve now consumes all his news and entertainment in Spanish.
“The news is depressing enough,” Steve says, “but when you read or listen to it in another language, at least you’re learning something.”
Steve was surprised by the reactions he received from people when he mentioned he was learning Spanish. “Why bother when the whole world speaks English?” they would ask. Others would suggest that studying any new language wasn’t worth the time because “we will eventually be able to get an implant to do real-time translation for us.”
Equally surprising was the number of people who would nod and whisper, “How are you doing it? I really want to learn to speak Spanish too,” as if they were sharing a dirty secret.
Steve recognized that old narratives about being bilingual in America, and about individuals’ ability to become bilingual, needed to change. “Often Americans feel like we suck at languages. Or monolinguals will say ‘I’m just not good at language, the same way some people will say ‘I’m not good at math.’”
Yet the facts don’t support that narrative. The United States is a world leader in monolingualism, while conversely, it is also a world leader in bilingualism. As Steve points out, “We have more bilinguals than any European country and are more diversely bilingual than any nation in the world’s most spoken languages.”
Sensing the seed of a good story, Steve had already begun to develop the initial idea for a book on bilingualism when he applied to DCI. Like many DCI alums, Steve describes his Stanford experience as “spectacular.” He also says it was instrumental in teaching him about the subject of bilingualism.
“I’d never studied linguistics. I didn’t even know the term sociolinguistics, which is a whole field of applied linguistics. It was all brand new, which was part of the interest. So I just dove in headfirst,” Steve explained.
In addition to spending long days at Green Library, Steve interviewed dozens of professors across diverse disciplines – languages, sociology, linguistics, natural language processing, longevity, history, and education.
“Stanford has so many experts who were uniformly welcoming, embracing me with open arms when I asked to speak to them,” Steve said.
As a companion endeavor, Steve founded the America the Bilingual project and hosts a podcast, now entering its fifth season. This year’s episodes will focus on interviews with notable American bilinguals. America the Bilingual also supports nonprofits that advance bilingualism through the Conversation Corps grants, funded by the Levenger Foundation. One of the grant recipients is English Together, founded by recently retired Stanford professor, Guadalupe Valdez.
Steve believes becoming bilingual is something all Americans should do. When I asked him if he felt he was bilingual now, he replied with his characteristic humility. “I’m conversational with a Spanish speaker,” he said, “as long as they have a sense of humor.”